Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Seveneves: a very not-little book about the importance of the moon

Neal Stephenson doesn't do anything half-assed. Following his career from the beginning when he came screaming onto the scene with Snow Crash - a slick, funny smart younger sibling of Burning Chrome by William Gibson, he was immediately recognized as worth your attention. A gifted storyteller with a wild imagination, Stephenson stories are rich with the unexpected and clever. A lot's change since Crash, and Stephenson has revealed himself as a little bit of a polymath-cum-renaissance man. It shows in every one of his increasingly dense tomes that show off his big, sexy brain. His books, if lobbed from a window would (hopefully) instantly kill the unlucky pedestrian below. They also double as a bludgeon, or as fellow Okie Geek Joshua Unruh is fond pointing out: a doorstop. 
I adored Snow Crash for what it was: fun, funny and fast. It was the last of Stephenson's books of a manageable size. Since then he's been wowing us with HUGE stories filled with intricate world-building and lush narratives that we inhabit for weeks, sometimes months as we experience the wonderful. 
Stephenson isn't just asking for your attention. He's the real deal, baby - he wants a commitment and if you're willing, he will take you on a trip that you can't get out of your head. But only after you've got the lingo down (no, really - Anathem has an actual glossary) and you can describe, from stem to stern the world in which all the action happens. Along the way you'll meet fascinating characters — in The Baroque Cycle, follow the adventures of the plucky (and not particularly lucky) Jack Shaftoe, a syphilitic (of course) former navy man-turned-pirate as "The Imp of the Perverse" leads him on improbable adventures. While telling his and several other people's stories, Stephenson manages to inform readers of the history (part of) world, especially the provenance of the modern financial system, primarily dealing with coinage. Yeah, it's that kind of story. Stephenson's works, when broken down by plot description, sound like PhD dissertation topics. Isaac Newton makes regular appearances.
It's wonderful. It's daunting. For someone who's thrilled at the prospect of spending no less than two months on a trilogy, it's so firmly up my alley. 

"The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are rocks is that some of the most important entities are rocks." - Charles Yu, Sunday Book Review - New York Times, 27 May 2015

Seveneves is a treatise on the future of the human race via our scientific achievements in the middle of the 21st Century. It was my favorite book of 2015, and as my fellow hosts and sweet husband can attest, I couldn't shut up about it for months. It took me a good month to read, which is unheard of. I'm always snatching a few more minutes to continue the story, and I read really, really fast. This one took me what felt like forever, with more joy every minute. 
It begins with an unemotional account of the day we lost the moon. In the telling of this event, the author treats us, in hindsight to a dispassionate-yet-intricate description of what happened and it's effect on the characters — of which there will be very few in a short time. A few days later, the world's leading scientific minds arrive at the ramifications of the loss of the moon, and the importance of that beautiful orb hanging in our sky. 
If you are not comfortable with loving and detailed descriptions of celestial bodies, (and, okay - I really don't understand, but,) I can firmly say that this is not the book for you. Part of the joy of this book is the loving descriptions of that beautiful rock that keeps the tides in working order, and how much we would miss her were she gone. Succinctly — that's the story of Seveneves — and that's not the story at all. The opening action seems almost random until you are firmly in the story. Not a word or a moment is wasted. Nothing is unnecessary. The editing must have been brutal. What remains is jaw-dropping.
It's that kind of story. 
What follows is an impossibly good narrative about space, science, human technology and advancement told in detail that would, in less capable hands, make the most ardent science wonk squirm. And yet, when told in Stephenson's passionately curious and ridiculously informed voice: the novel is part tech manual, part compassionate meditation on the best and absolute worst that humanity has to offer. 
The result is simply staggering. It's all the things the author has to say about science in all its geeky detail — it's beautiful, it's hopeful and it's the author (and his characters) at their nerdy, curious and absolute best. 

(And if there's any objective way to express how profoundly this book moved me, it took me six months to be able to articulate it in words, rather than enthusiastic high-fives - real or emoji.)

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